DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – As Bahrain gears up for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, it is hoping success on the pitch can heal the divided nation after months of bloody political unrest.
But as the team trained this week in Dubai, the fallout from Shiite-led protests calling for greater rights from Sunni rulers is hard to ignore. Several Shiite footballers who took part in the protests and were later detained have not been included in the national squad, including brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, Abbas Ayaad, Mahmoud Al Oujami and Sayed Mohamed Adnan.
Bahrain coach Peter Taylor, who took over the team in July, insisted the protests and violent government crackdown have not impeded the team's preparations. Although several players are banned from playing for their local clubs, Taylor said he hasn't ruled out eventually including them in the national side.
''As far as I'm concerned, if they start playing football and they show me their football fitness and they are good enough to be in the squad, they will be included,'' Taylor, an Englishman, said Thursday after a training session. ''They were banned by their clubs. They weren't banned by their federations.''
But when asked whether he worried his decision could be overridden by the Bahrain Football Association, Taylor said ''we have not gotten to that stage. I have to see them play first.''
Ibrahim Mishkhas, a Sunni defender who has played for the national team for 15 years, said he would welcome players who took part in the protests.
''They deserve a second chance,'' Mishkhas said. ''Everyone make mistakes. It's not my decision but I would like to have them back. They are great players and they have been with the team and did very well for the country. Hopefully they will be forgiven and they will be with us during a very important time.''
The Bahrain association has so far not commented on the status of the players, although it told FIFA in July that it ''had not suspended or sanctioned any athlete.''
Still, it is unlikely any of the players could return for the team's opening match Sept. 2 against Qatar or the subsequent match on Sept. 6 against Indonesia. They have all been released from jail but charges against them for taking part in the protests have not been dropped.
Brothers Mohammed, who along with his brother Alaa were credited with helping Bahrain reach the Asian Cup semifinals in 2004, was sentenced in June to two years in jail for taking part in the protests. Alaa and the remaining players are likely to be put on trial in September after Ramadan when the civilian courts resume hearing cases against protesters.
The action against the footballers was part of a widespread government crackdown on dissent that has resulted in journalists, bloggers, doctors, lawyers and activists being detained. More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees have been suspended since April for their alleged involvement in the protests.
Bahrain, a tiny country of just 525,000, has long punched above its weight in football. Ranked as high as 49th in the FIFA world rankings in 2004, it just barely missed out on qualification for the last two World Cups. It finished qualifying for the 2010 World Cup as the fifth-placed team in Asia but lost to New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff.
Since then, the political turmoil has not been the only distraction for the Bahrain team. It has endured a series of injuries in the past year and is now on its third coach since the loss to New Zealand. It failed to make it out of the group stage in this year's Asian Cup and its ranking fell to 100.
Taylor, who has managed the England under-21 team and several clubs in England including Leicester City and Crystal Palace, has tried to limit expectations for the team. Bahrain has only played one friendly under Taylor - a 1-1 draw with Oman on Wednesday that was suspended in the second half when the flood lights failed.
''I think for a country the size of Bahrain, it was an incredible achievement for them to nearly get there,'' he said of World Cup qualification campaign. ''With a little bit of luck, in the end they might have gotten there. They are improving all the time and it is a good opportunity to come here and push them across this final hurdle.''
Mishkhas said the team's chances of qualification are good because it has been drawn into a group that includes Asian powerhouse Iran but also minnows Indonesia and Qatar. He said there ''were issues'' early on between the mix of Sunni and Shia players on the team but that they have now put aside their differences to concentrate on reaching the World Cup.
''We have played with each other for a long time and we know each other very well and we don't care about such things,'' Mishkhas said.
''Hopefully we will work hard for Bahrain,'' he said. ''It is part of healing and hopefully we can try to heal the country with the way Sunni and Shia play together. Hopefully we will make a good result for country and everyone will understand there is no difference between Sunni and Shia.''